Difficult Conversation? Don’t Forget Your Oxygen Mask!

Bring your Oxygen Mask in Difficult Conversations Mary Rafferty Consensus Mediation

You’re sitting in an aeroplane with your three year old son.

Suddenly, the plane starts to jolt and rock. You feel dizzy, it’s hard to breathe.

The little boy starts wheezing and crying with pain. You can feel panic rising.

From above oxygen masks drop down. Grabbing one you rush to ease the small boy’s gasping but just in time, you remember the flight attendant’s mantra “secure your own mask first”.

It’s easy to get focused on the other person.

Whether it’s in caring for them as in the scenario above or arguing with them when you get stuck in a difficult conversation.

But it’s a mistake. In the airplane, the pressure drop reduces the level of oxygen in your brain. You can no longer think straight. It’s the same physiological reaction when someone is being disagreeable or arguing unreasonably with you.

Imagine you are giving feedback to a team member. He doesn’t like what he’s hearing, starts defending, it’s not his fault, it’s not fair, you didn’t support him enough.

You can feel frustration rising. Why doesn’t he get it that his work isn’t up to scratch? Why can’t he see that you are trying to help him improve? You try to reason with him.

He’s not listening. A knot of irritation spreads slowly from your stomach. The tone gradually rises as you both get more annoyed.



Emotions like anger and frustration cloud our thinking. We go into fight or flight mode. Adrenaline and cortisol are released which lower oxygen and glucose levels in the brain. We become less rational, more reactive.

When the tension is rising, it’s time to don your oxygen mask. Landing a ‘difficult conversation’ safely needs you to be calm and composed, not irate and indignant.

How to keep physically calm when tensions rise

Here are some strategies to stay calm, centred and in control in a ‘difficult’ conversation.

  • Learn to recognize the physical signals of early arousal

Become aware of the subtle changes that take place in your physiological state, body language and tone of voice.
Does your stomach clench, does your neck heat up or tighten?

Do you become more animated, raise your voice or are you more likely to become quiet, close down?
Being able to notice the early signs of getting irked and irritated will make it easier to inhibit and manage this response.

  • Take 3 or 4 slow, deliberate deep breaths

It sounds clichéd but deep breathing counteracts angst-inducing stress hormones. Focused, mindful breathing stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system and the relaxation response.

  • Find a way to take either a physical or mental ‘time out’

Going into listening mode can be a way of ‘buying time’ for you to regroup mentally. Perhaps ask a question, ask them to repeat something.

While they are talking, do your deep breathing. If the situation permits, find a way to take a short time-out: ‘Can I just have a think about this for a couple of minutes and come back to you?’

  • Count to ten

Yes, your mother was right.

Counting to ten works in two ways. It slows us down, we are less impulsive. It also distracts us – as long as we are focused on our counting 1 – 2 – 3 … and not on what’s bugging us.

Combine it with deep breathing, it’s a simple but powerful way to instantly soothe simmering feelings.

How to keep mentally calm when tensions rise

  • Adapt a fly-on-the-wall perspective

Imagine you are an observer looking from a distance at the situation. Our tendency is to become immersed in our feelings, even afterwards, getting stuck in rumination which further feeds our anger. But a ‘self-distancing’ approach can minimise and dissipate angry feelings in the heat of the moment.

  • Reframe or reappraise how you are viewing the situation

It’s been said that in a ‘difficult conversation’, the most important conversation is the one you have with yourself – before, during and afterwards.

Research shows that we can influence our emotional response by reframing or reappraising a situation or event. Practice statements or ‘self-talk’ that you can reach for when you are feeling triggered.

‘I am calm and in control’ or ‘This isn’t about me, it’s their issue’ – these work for me. But it’s an individual thing, you need to find some sentence that works for you.

  • Know your own hot buttons

If you know the kinds of words or behaviours likely to trip your switch you will have a better chance of not reacting. It’s useful also to know why this button is hot for you – what meaning do you take from it.

What sets you off? I’m kind of allergic to people adopting a ‘victim’ stance. For me, it signals someone who doesn’t want to take responsibility for themselves and their situation. So I need to do lots of deep breathing when someone behaves in this way.

In summary

There are many ways you can use to keep you in a mindful and clear state of mind if tempers start to rise. You need to find the one(s) that work for you.

And it’s not that you should just ignore or tolerate all sorts of unhelpful or inappropriate behaviour from others. Sit there passively while they steamroll you into doing what they want.

It’s just that staying calm and unruffled when it’s actually happening means you can be more strategic and mindful about what you say and how you respond.

No more ‘I should have, I could have…’ afterwards.

Just clarity and peace of mind.

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